We need more discourse, not disgust

As a woman in tech, I was interested in the Google “Echo Chamber” memo. However, my reaction to the article was not anger or disgust, but rather a realization that our discussion about diversity is one-sided, and this is a serious problem.

Despite his sexist statements, I think the author is not actually trying to be sexist. He wants a fair work environment and doesn’t want diversity initiatives foisted upon him. Some of his points are accurate, but many are misguided. Quite understandably, many were hurt by the article, particularly women who work at Google. After all, the article suggests that women are less biologically fit to be engineers! The author assumes that “female” traits are genetic, ignoring whether social and cultural norms dominate. He even suggests that diversity is pursued in an effort to “protect” the weaker sex, which is offensive on many levels.

Gender topics are “taboo” in the workplace. Those who raise questions about whether gender differences account for disparity in tech will face backlash.

But here’s the thing: it’s hard to talk about these topics openly, as they are taboo in the workplace. Those who raise questions about whether gender differences account for disparity in tech will face backlash. The article resonated with others, which shows that we need to openly talk about issues. That said, open discourse does not give one free reign to be hurtful.

We need to be respectful of people who don’t agree with us, because that’s the only way we ever can hope to convince them of anything. If people feel that the majority is imposing their agenda on everyone else, it will just harbor resentment and mistrust. Mary-Ann Ionascu posted a great article with the same message. She says, “ostracizing people for expressing their opinions creates isolation — the opposite of inclusion.” I couldn’t agree more.

We need to be respectful of people who don’t agree with us, because that’s the only way we ever can hope to convince them of anything.

I won’t go into all the details of why the “science” was inaccurate and misleading, as others have covered thoroughly. See “Actually, I was biologically designed to be an engineer” and Robotica Misfit’s satirical tweet storm.

Instead, I want to talk about the one point that the article got right: we need to have an open dialogue about diversity and inclusion, and we need to convince those who don’t understand the problem, not shut them down.

Microsoft recently launched an innovative diversity training that is required for all managers in my org. It’s called “Dialogue Across Differences” and features trained actors who play out scenes. The unique aspect is that the audience can ask questions of the actors, who then respond in character. For example, the audience might ask a homophobic character why he is uncomfortable when someone mentions their life partner in a work conversation.

Here’s the interesting thing about the training: it creates a safe space for people who have unpopular views. For instance, a man who grew up in a less tolerant culture asked an actor why people feel the need to socialize at work. He didn’t want Microsoft to change any policies, but he was uncomfortable knowing that some of his coworkers were gay. He felt work was a place for work, and that others should keep their personal life private.

Think about this conversation: could you imagine him ever bringing this up with his coworkers? Instead, he would only talk to others who share his views, creating his own echo chamber.

If women are more collaborative, that’s actually a good thing

The author also correctly notes that different genders are drawn to different careers. However, it’s quite likely that these differences are social, not genetic.

If women are indeed more cooperative and collaborative, that doesn’t mean women shy away from tech. It means that women can help create a more collaborative work environment. This can range from being tech lead or product manager, or just being an engineer who works well with others. Being cooperative and collaborative makes you a better engineer, not a worse one. At Microsoft, managers seek feedback about how well their employees work in a team. Someone who is a “lone wolf” will get a much smaller bonus than someone who helps others and contributes to the team effort.

If men seek higher status jobs…

Perhaps this is why men are over-represented in leadership positions. But, think about this statement in relation to the previous one: women are more collaborative and don’t seek power? Who is more likely to be a good leader? Perhaps he’s right: I’ve heard that female VPs tend to foster harmony and collaboration, rather than competition.

The real reason women don’t pursue tech

Now, it’s possible that gender differences do account for less interest in tech among women, but data shows that if this difference exists, it is very slight. Moreover, studies overwhelmingly show that gender differences are mainly cultural, not genetic. What we’ve seen is that women do enjoy tech in equal numbers to men, but they enjoy it for different reasons.

Women tend to care more about the outcome of a project and how it affects society, whereas men tend to be more interested in technology itself. Both of these traits are valuable at a tech company: you need people who look at the big picture and consider the customer experience, as well as people who want to design the perfect implementation.

Women were far more represented in tech in the 80s, when there were no computers at home. With the advent of the PC, boys were far more likely to use the computer, which is where the stereotype began. This was the start of the gender disparity: coding became a job for men, not women.

In my case, I had no brothers, so I had my wonderful Commodore 64 all to myself. I wrote BASIC programs and had no idea that I was doing a “boy’s” activity. Given this background, it was quite natural for me to pursue an advanced degree in computer science. In contrast, none of my childhood friends used their computer at home and none pursued tech.

Discourse, not disgust

Let’s not point fingers and ostracize those who simply voice their opinions. Let’s instead recognize that this memo has brought important issues to light. Let’s have an open and honest dialogue, even about these “taboo” subjects. Only then can we hope to understand each other and create change.


Update 8/15: After seeing the response from James Damore, I think he’s unlikely to learn from his mistakes. However, the number of followers he has shows that his view is not an isolated one. So, continued discussion is still important.


A big thanks to James Hendricks and Glenn Block for reviewing an early version of this article.
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